What is the Audioengine B-Fi streamer?
Say the words ‘low-cost streamer’ and many will immediately think of the Raspberry Pi (RPi). Loaded with a suitable operating system it sounds great. Add one of the many DAC options and you’ve got a complete streaming solution. It may not win any beauty contests but it gets on with the job admirably, capable of holding its own in systems up to around £2k. Particularly if you feed it from a good power supply – hold that thought.
Global supply problems have made the RPi scarce right now though. There’s also quite an element of DIY; you have to download and flash the operating system, then configure the device. Which, frankly, nixes it as an option for many. Fair enough.
Step forward the Audioengine B-Fi, a streamer that’s small, includes the option of using it’s own DAC, and doesn’t cost a fortune. It’s also designed to be simple to use. All of which sounds good on paper – the review sample was loaned by a friend who bought it for those very reasons. But what’s it like in practise, and how good does it sound? Let’s have a look….
What does it do?
Costing £179 / US$189 / €199, the B-Fi streams music via Wi-Fi, with the choice of analogue (RCA phono) or digital (optical SP/DIF) outputs. A (supplied) 5V power supply plugs into it. All those connections sit on one end of the B-Fi. The other houses a short Wi-Fi aerial and the on/off button.
You won’t find an Ethernet connection. Nor any digital inputs that would allow access to the B-Fi’s ES9023-based DAC. And those wanting Bluetooth capability will have to shell out another £169 for Audioengine’s B1. All of which are design choices to keep the B-Fi both low-cost and remarkably small (think large box of matches). I for one am not complaining.
Audioengine supplies an RCA cable to get you going. It’s cheap and sounds distinctly flat though – best to budget £30-£50 for a better one. The supplied 5V power supply sounds better. You can however switch in a 3rd party supply for potentially better sound quality. I tried Allo’s £49 Nirvana, which seemed price appropriate. iFi’s iPower is a similarly-priced option.
The B-Fi is a light device, in keeping with its size. Build quality is good though.
What can you stream?
There are three ways of getting music to the B-Fi: via the Audioengine App, via Airplay or using UPNP. The Audioengine App is available on both iOS and Android, and provides Spotify Connect, Tidal, Napster, Qobuz, Amazon Music and QQMusic (a Chinese partnership with Spotify). Radio fans have TuneIn and iHeartRadio.
Those wanting Apple Music can use the B-Fi’s Airplay capability. Ditto any other Airplay-enabled service. It’s the original Airplay, not Airplay 2, so there’s no Apple-related multi-rooming. No problem, the Audioengine App can control up to 8 different zones around the home.
And finally to UPNP, which I tested by playing files kept on my laptop. I used Audirvana (V3.5.46); everything worked as expected. Other clients such as Bubble UPNP are available.
Audioengine’s App is straightforward, looks good, and is easy to find your way around. A minor quibble is Tidal sorting favourite albums by ‘album name’, making it difficult to find recently-added music. This is a common problem with Tidal in 3rd party Apps though; Audioengine is not alone.
More annoying is the lack of gapless, at least in Tidal and Qobuz; there’s an unintended pause between tracks on albums like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. Not good in this day and age. At least Spotify Connect fares better – it plays gaplessly – because control is handed over to Spotify.
On the plus side, volume can be controlled through the Audioengine App. Including using your phone’s volume buttons – handier than you might think.
On music the B-Fi is limited to CD-quality (16bit/44.1kHz), there’s no provision for hi-res PCM, DSD, or MQA. Some may bemoan this but not me – 16/44 can sound fantastic. Just remember not to send the B-Fi anything higher than 16/44 or it may downsample the music (which could impact sound quality).
Setup is simple; plug the B-Fi in, select it on your phone as the preferred network and it then connects to your Wi-Fi. In regular use, start-up takes 30 seconds or so, with the B-Fi helpfully telling you (literally) when it’s ready. When you’ve finished listening just hit the power button to switch the B-Fi off – much easier than some computer-based streamers.
Stability with Wi-Fi was excellent, never once glitching. To be expected as it was close to my router, but that hasn’t always been the case with other streamers I’ve used
How does the B-Fi sound?
Music from Tidal and Qobuz was played via the Audioengine app. The B-Fi connected to both the digital and analogue inputs of a £400 Marantz PM6006 amplifier, which in turn drove £2,300 Graham LS6 standmounts (used as I know them well – you obviously don’t need to spend that much).
Out of the box
And the B-Fi sounds darned good – much to like, nothing to dislike. With appropriate music the sound is big and, to a certain extent, bold (but not brash). The soundstage is wide and tall, and ‘Blackbird’ from Lady Blackbird’s Black Acid Soul shows the B-Fi handles depth well too (a fantastic album by the way).
There’s plenty of detail without the sound getting thin. The double bass on ‘Blackbird’ is commendably meaty for example. Indeed the B-Fi’s bass performance is pretty good overall. ‘Time’ from Hans Zimmerman’s Inception soundtrack certainly impresses with both its depth and control. As does Simo Cell’s ‘Symmetry’ from On Line, Vol 1, the bass filling every nook and cranny of the room.
Billie Eilish’ new Bond theme, ‘No Time To Die’ is really atmospheric, a word that crops up more than once in the listening notes. And – new to me – Tavener’s Tears of the Angels by the Scottish Ensemble has me transfixed, any thought of analysis gone. That’s always a good sign.
That’s using the B-Fi’s own DAC. I switch to the optical output, playing into the Marantz amplifier’s internal DAC. Things move up a level; there’s great clarity. It’s not a completely one-way street, a slight loss of warmth is apparent. Most people will prefer the sound through the Marantz DAC though.
The improved clarity brings an enhanced soundstage and a greater sense of acoustic space. A slight softness has also gone, replaced by stronger dynamics. Secret Machines ‘First Wave Intact’ (from Now Here is Nowhere) has me diving for the volume knob when I first play it, the switch from quiet opening to blast of guitars catching me out. Oops.
Overall if your amplifier has its own optical input then try the B-Fi through it. Don’t fret about having to rely on the B-Fi’s own DAC though, it’s not a night and day difference.
Better power supply
Adding a better power supply to a Raspberry Pi, whether it’s used just as a streamer or with a DAC ‘HAT’ connected to it, makes a noticeable difference. Basically there’s less electrical noise, which translates into more detail coming through. The sound is also more refined.
Plumbing the Allo Nirvana power supply into the B-Fi has the same effect.
Francesca Dego’s Mozart Violin Concertos 3&4 with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra is sprightly to begin with, the smaller orchestra suiting the composition and her style of play. With the Nirvana in circuit there’s even more zing, everything is lighter, more agile. The sense of acoustic is also enhanced, with greater depth. It’s not step change, it is worthwhile.
Back to Hans Zimmer’s ‘Time’. The improvement from the Nirvana is greater than with the Mozart. The piece builds slowly. Through the Nirvana the sense of anticipation is far greater. It’s also easier to hear the different aspects of the mix. The background guitars are much clearer for example. And with the Nirvana any congestion at high volume is banished, the music washing over me gloriously.
That’s using the B-Fi’s analogue outputs, the sound going through its own DAC. I try the B-Fi’s digital output, using the DAC in the Marantz amplifier. With the better power supply connected to the B-Fi there’s little difference between the B-Fi’s digital and analogue outputs now. But, both sound better than powering the B-Fi from the low-cost supply.
The takeaway is simple, if you can stretch the budget by £50 for a better power supply then do. The B-Fi will thank you by sounding notably more refined. A slight smear will have been removed.
Comparison – Allo BOSS Player V2
Housed in a funky aquamarine-blue case, Allo’s BOSS2 player costs £166. Mine uses the Moode operating system and is straightforward to use, even if it can’t hold a candle to the B-Fi for simplicity. When comparing the two I used a good power supply with both (level playing field and all that).
The outcome was interesting. Overall they perform at a similar level, but they do sound different. The B-Fi focuses on clarity, the BOSS2 has a richer presentation. I’m minded of the difference between Sennheiser HD600 and HD650 headphones. The 600s are clearer but lighter in tone (B-Fi). The 650s have more colour and a darker tone (BOSS2). I prefer the texture of the 650, others opt for the openness of the 600. To each their own.
I actually switched allegiances between the B-Fi and the BOSS2 track by track. With Hans Zimmer’s ‘Time’ the more controlled and organised sound of the B-Fi won the day, despite the BOSS2 going deeper and having more heft. With the beautifully sparse ‘Refrain’ from John Potter (Care-Charming Sleep) the BOSS2 rounds the sound out a little more and makes the acoustic more believable. The B-Fi is slightly cold or impersonal in comparison.
Also bear in mind that different ancillaries will likely lead to different conclusions. The Marantz PM6006 amplifier I was using has a lighter tonal balance, maybe favouring the BOSS2’s contrasting presentation. That two similarly inexpensive digital sources can sound so good is perhaps more the point.
Audioengine’s B-Fi is a straightforward device that’s simple to use and sounds good. It’s also flexible, the digital output allowing you to use it with other DACs. And don’t overlook the option of a better power supply, it’s well worth the extra cost.
The Audioengine App is good, the one glitch being the lack of gapless play on some streaming services. It does offer a wide range of music services though. And Airplay extends the choice even further for Apple users.
The plug’n’play nature of the B-Fi is a key strength, appealing amongst others to those who are new to streaming. No need to fiddle with operating systems and the like. That simplicity doesn’t come at a cost to sound quality though. All in all, the B-Fi is a solid little streamer that exceeded expectations (I love it when that happens). Well worth considering.